The smashing success of the HBO series, The Sopranos, which tells the complex story of a New Jersey mafia family, is stunning as it is relatively puzzling. The glorification of the gangster way of life, the humanization of professional killers, is as horrifying as it is riveting. So it is with the life, death, and continued fame-cum-notoriety, of Bugsy Siegel. Visit his crypt, in the Hall of Solomon mausoleum, in the Beth Olam section of Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and you will, more than likely, see lipstick marks, kisses to the great beyond from female admirers, on the marble exterior. His legend lives on, more than a half a century after his most violent death.
Benjamin Siegel was born, in Brooklyn, New York, on February 28, 1906, to poor Russian immigrant parents. Young Ben watched his father work, very hard, very long hours, for very little money. Though he might have had a modicum of respect for his toiling dad, Ben was determined never to experience want, or need. He was, from that time, on the path to organized crime, and at a very young age, beginning with his demanding protection money from pushcart vendors.
Halfway through his teen years he met Meyer Lansky, with whom he formed the Bug & Meyer Mob, a gang that dealt in gambling and car theft. The gang became involved in bootlegging in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. The Bug & Meyer Mob teamed up with Albert Anastasia and Lucky Luciano in a gang led by Joe "The Boss" Masseria, in 1930. Luciano allegedly used Siegel to kill Joe Masseria, a move that ended that Castellammarese War for power of the New York mob, in 1931. Siegel continued to carry out murders for Luciano and by 1937 there were a number of contracts out on Bugsy, because he had angered several bosses. Incidentally, Siegel loathed his nickname, Bugsy, which derived from his violent temper: some who dared to call him by his nickname to his face, reportedly, did not live to repeat the address.
Luciano and his crew decided that it would be best for Siegel to leave for the West Coast to escape the wrath of several of his enemies, and to set up new syndicate rackets in California. The year was 1937; the city was Los Angeles. There he met and befriended a large number of Hollywood stars, as well as studio owners such as Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer; eventually, Siegel would be extorting money from both film moguls. He also met Virginia Hill, a money runner for the Chicago Mob, and who had a penchant for blackmailing Hollywood stars. The two became involved, financially, and romantically.
Bugsy Siegel, for better or worse, is often called "The Father of Las Vegas," as in 1946, Siegel used about $5 million of syndicate money to construct the first super-casino/hotel, the Flamingo, in Las Vegas. When the opening of the casino turned out to be a fiasco, and the money did not start flowing in as expected, Luciano demanded that Siegel return the $5 million he had used. Siegel, figuring himself as big and powerful as Luciano, told him to "go to hell." In addition, it was revealed, in a closed door meeting of the syndicate, that additional funds, used to bankroll the building of the Flamingo, had been skimmed-off profits, which "rightly" belonged to Luciano and Lansky. In reaction, Luciano ordered to have Siegel killed. Meyer Lansky, Siegel's friend from adolescence, gave his blessings to the hit.
On the evening of June 20, 1947, Benjamin Siegel was at home in the bungalow he and Virginia Hill shared in Hollywood. He had just returned from an evening haircut and manicure and was lolling about on Hillís chintz sofa in front of an open window reading the evening papers. At about 10:30 p.m., a fusillade of bullets crashed through the living room window. Five shots found their way into Siegel's head, ribs, and lungs. Three other shots missed their mark. Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, 42 years old, was dead. Even though Siegelís slaying was front-page news across the country, just five people Ė all relatives Ė attended his funeral. Meyer Lansky was in Havana and couldnít make it back in time; Virginia Hill was in Zurich, and none of Benís Hollywood buddies managed to make it to the services. It was a humiliating end to a sad life.
The life of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, tragically complex as it was stereotypically textbook, was pictorialized in Bugsy, starring Warren Beatty, in 1991; no doubt Siegel, himself, would have enjoyed being the subject of a bio-movie. However, the action in the film, as with the weekly saga of The Sopranos, recreates events that actually did, and do, happen. That should give pause, and should inspire each one of us to ponder life's actions carefully, with an eye towards forever. In each life, a story is told: how it is told, coupled with what it will say, when it is completed, is in each of our hands, today